Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Redeeming Samson

After studying Judges 13-16, one might conclude that a character like Samson is beyond redemption. He does not observe his vows. He repeatedly exposes both his heart and his countrymen to the enemy. He is ruled by his passions, and he thinks mainly of himself. Even his prayers betray a self-centeredness.
And yet, here are some points that I call, "Redeeming Samson:"
1. It seems that Judges 14-15 recite events at the beginning of Samson's 20-year "reign," and that the events of chapter 16 relate events at the end of that 20-year period. We don't know how Samson worshipped or behaved during the intervening period.
If only the two worst moments of the past 20 years of your life were known, what would people think of you? While it is true that Samson may have been always willful and sinful, perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.
2. God had a larger purpose. In Judges 13, God told Samson's mother that Samson would begin to deliver the people from the Philistines. As we read further, we find that it is left to a greater king, David, to finally deliver Israel from this threat. But it may be that God was delaying the Philistine advance through Samson until such a time that this nation could unite and defend against this enemy.
Samson was God's chosen instrument. Maybe he wasn't the best of instruments. But we had better be careful about discounting what God has chosen to use.
3. Samson shows up in the "Hall of Faith," Hebrews 11. He shows up next to Gideon, Barak, and Jephthah, all of whom had less than perfect faith. But it seems that all, including Samson, learned at some point that they must trust Someone other than themselves, and they did so.
4. When in trouble, Samson prayed. Do you? No, his prayers were not perfect. But he prayed. It was the right thing to do.
In the end, we can speak of "Redeeming Samson," not because of anything good in Samson, but because of everything good in God. God justifies the ungodly. Jesus saves sinners. And so, Samson qualifies. He is not beyond redemption.
We often say that Jesus saves us from sin and from Satan. But Samson needed to be saved from himself. In a sense, he was his own worst enemy. Perhaps you and I can relate. And I am glad that Jesus saves sinners from themselves.

Pragmatism and Postmodernism in the Church (excerpted from Strachan and Sweeney, and Guiness)

With the rise of the financial market and the cultural abandonment of various tenets of a Christian worldview, many of our evangelical churches have shifted from a richly biblical and theological perspective to one driven by pragmatic concerns. Congregations often do not make this shift to spite doctrine; instead, they do it because they think it will bring health and growth. Though they may mean well, a concern for numbers over a concern for personal faith makes it easy for nominalism to creep into the church. When churches concentrate so much on bringing people in, they can lose sight of building people up. That kind of atmosphere can make it easy for people to adopt a half-hearted faith, a Christianity that may be no Christianity at all.
     Cultural critic Os Guinness has written persuasively about the pragmatic mindset in the church. He notes that: “The concern, ‘Will it work?’ has long over-shadowed ‘Is it true?’ Theology has given way to technique. Know-whom has faded before know-how. Serving God has subtly been deformed into servicing the self. At its worst, the result is a shift from faith to the ‘faith in faith’ which – along with faith in religion – is a perniciously distinctive American heresy. But even at tis best, pragmatism results in an evangelicalism rich in ingenuity and organization but poor in spirituality and superficial, if not banal, in doctrine. We have become the worldliest Christians in America.” Strachan and Sweeney, in Jonathan Edwards on True Christianity, pp 37-38, quoting Os Guiness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It, p. 59

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Samson's Revenge (Judges 14-15)

Hey, Samson, you look exhausted. Why are you so tired?
You would be tired too if you had just killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. But, hee, hee, I made donkeys of them.
That is an amazing feat. But Samson, what drove you to do such a thing?
It was clearly self-preservation. An army of Philistines approached three thousand of my own countrymen and persuaded them to hand me over. They would have killed me.
But Samson, it is an unusual thing for an army to pursue just one man. What made you so "wanted" in their eyes.
I was hiding from them because I had accomplished a great slaughter of their men down in Timnah.
Samson, so much killing! Why did you kill those men?
For good reason! They had burned down the house of my father-in-law with him and my wife inside. They deserved what they received.
Perhaps they did. But why would they burn down that house.
I suppose it was because of the fires set by the foxes tails tied together with torches, 300 hundred in all. What a success! It burned their standing grain and their shocks of grain and their olive groves and their vineyards.
And probably not a few foxes as well. I must say that was a clever and cruel deed. Why did you go to all that trouble.
I wanted to show them that they couldn't treat me lightly. My father-in-law gave my wife away as wife of one of my friends.
Well why would he do such a thing, in light of the family agreement and community celebration and all?
Maybe it was because I left angry and in haste after I had killed thirty men and stolen their garments. I guess he thought that I hated her.
Why were you so angry?
Well, it's a long story, but I lost a bet. I was sure it was a no-lose situation. They could never have figured out the riddle that I proposed. But they threatened my wife with burning if she did not draw the secret out of me. And finally, I gave in.
So Samson, these two chapters of revenge and retaliation all started with a riddle, with a bet? 
They deserved it.
So how's that working out for you? 
Everything's fine. I think my troubles are over.
(Read Judges 16)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Current State

“I am benumbed and badly crushed; I groan because of the agitation of my heart.” (Psalms 38:8 NAS95)
They say that in order to move to a desired state, we need to face the reality of today. What is my current state? The Psalmist says, "Uhh, ..."
The truth is, most of the time, you and I don't know our current state, especially when it comes to our desires and our motivations and attitudes and moods. We don't know ourselves very well. Our best moments can turn sour in a moment, and our depressions can sometimes reveal themselves in a sweet dependence on God. What is bad can be good, and what seems good can turn out pretty bad.
In Psalm 38:8, the psalmist uses three words that are bad, or good. The first two key words are passive. Then the psalmist groans because of a third condition, described by "agitation." So we will take them in order. "Benumbed" sounds bad to me. And yet this is the word that describes Jacob when he discovers that Joseph is alive after all those years (Genesis 45:26). He was "stunned." He was in shock, and his system did not know how to respond. But is that bad, or good? Maybe at times not knowing how to respond is a better response. "Badly crushed" sounds really bad. And yet in Psalm 51:17, the word is translated "contrite," describing a repentant heart. And that would be good. It seems that this psalmist is at the end of himself because of his sin. It is a most miserable condition. And it is exactly where he (we) need(s) to be.
These two passive verbs are translated somewhat differently in the LXX, and we find them used together, in the passive, in Genesis 15:13: "God said to Abram, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.'" Our words are "enslaved" and "oppressed." That's got to be bad. And yet God's people were exactly where they needed to be in preparation for the coming redemption/deliverance. (The LXX translators chose the common Greek word for "humbled" to render "oppressed.")
"Agitation" may result from things good or bad. One can be agitated in anticipation, or agitated out of regret. Sure, we would like to be at rest, all relaxed. But both students before the test, one prepared, the other unprepared, may both feel a sense of agitation.
All of this is to say that when we are benumbed and badly crushed and groaning due to agitation, we still may not be able to say a lot about our current state ... other than this: God is still on the throne, and He is at work in the world and in our lives; His sovereign purposes are able to salvage sinners like you and me, and He is even able to use our mess-ups for good; All of life is His laboratory, and though we at times feel like lab rats, He will wisely administer His goodness. This is our current state. Not bad.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Congregational Concern and Cooperation

The Church of Jesus Christ is called by Paul "the body of Christ." Christ does not have many bodies, only one, but nonetheless, local congregations take on a "body" quality as they strive to recognize the "head"ship of Christ, and as they seek to acknowledge and utilize the giftedness of her people/parts to function joyfully and fruitfully.
There are various forms of church government out there. We are congregational. We understand that those who have believed in Jesus Christ have received the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit who has been given to be a guiding force in our lives to help us live under the Lordship of Christ. Because we have the Spirit, the people of the church are qualified to lead the church together. Episcopal (bishop) forms of government expect that the bishop is especially equipped to lead. Presbyterian (elder) forms of government expect that the elders are especially equipped to lead. All groups understand that there can be un-spiritual bishops or elders or congregation members. But our understanding of Biblical teaching and theology requires that we strive for a Spirit-led congregation who will then, out of concern and in cooperation, lead.
I suppose that a congregation that does not congregate is a little bit like a student who does not study. But there is more to it than simply getting together. Something should take place as we gather - shared concern and willing cooperation. This is our privilege, and this is our responsibility.
A new form of church government has appeared recently. I'm not sure what it will be called, but it borrows heavily from corporate and executive practices in business. Local churches become franchises, and corporate control is used to ensure a quality experience. The preaching is good, the music is excellent, the crowd is big, and the programs are many. I expect that they are serious about the leading of the Spirit, but the Spirit leads from the top. I am not bold enough to say that this is not Christ's church. But a church of this type is no more yours or mine than Home Depot is my hardware store. They value their customers, but not individually, only in masses.
And so, what kind of church are we? What kind of church do we want to be? My desire is for our church to reflect the beauty of the Gospel, that in God's grace, God saves sinners whom He folds into His family and entrusts with gifts and responsibility to actually be involved first-hand in God's work in the world. We do it, not because we are strong and effective, but rather because we know that God delights to deposit "this treasure" in "jars of clay" (2 Corinthians 4:7) so that in our weakness His strength shines through. 
Church renewal will require a renewal of congregational concern and cooperation. No bishop or group of elders or board of directors will dictate this. It happens as the Spirit works in His people, and where concern and cooperation take the forms of prayer and fellowship.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

"We've Got Trouble Here!"

As we raise our children, we celebrate growth and progress. Yet we must admit that much of life is taken up with damage control, dealing with break-downs of one type or another. The psalmist in Psalm 38:3-7 is in the midst of this kind of mess. I am selecting this portion of Psalm 38 since it is enclosed at beginning and end by the words, "there is no soundness in my flesh."
Integrity means "of one piece." The person of integrity is not fractured, but rather is whole. There is not a great distance between what he says and what he does. He does not pretend great success in the midst of prevailing failure. He is real, all the way through. The psalmist's references to "no soundness," "no health," "iniquity," and "wounds" show that he admits to a fragmenting of life.
To his credit, the psalmist is not claiming that everything is great on the outside while he experiences misery on the inside. These words from Isaiah 1:6 may match his confession, perhaps not physically, but mentally, spiritually and emotionally: "From the sole of the foot even to the head There is nothing sound in it, Only bruises, welts and raw wounds, Not pressed out or bandaged, Nor softened with oil." An essential step for each of us is to admit that there are real problems.
Three "because" phrases (vv 3,5) show his understanding of his situation. First, the psalmist knows that he is in trouble "because of God's indignation." "Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger?" Nahum 1:6. Second, he is in trouble "because of my sin." He has done what he has done (or not done), and he cannot change the facts of history. The record has been sealed. Third, he is in trouble "because of my folly." The dumb thing about folly is that we know that we are so foolish we will do the dumb thing again. "Like a dog that returns to its vomit Is a fool who repeats his folly" Proverbs 26:11.
When sin gets the best of us, it is like we are drowning in it. Verse 4 speaks of being "overwhelmed," the only negative use of this word in the Old Testament. It feels like we are going under for the last time. This verse speaks of a burdensome-ness to this condition. A bad man makes a rotten mule, unable to bear his load. Verse 5 then describes the sickening side effects: we are offensive to others, and we really cannot stand ourselves.
The last two verses of this section suggested to me several "d" words. When sin's grip is severe, it has far-reaching effects. "Bent" suggests a deranged condition. "Greatly bowed" indicates deep despair. "Mourning" points to a kind of darkness that obscures plain sight. The problem with this condition is that it renders one unable to function properly. Our senses are damaged by this dismal fog of sin and failure. The "burning" of verse 7 suggests disgrace. A dismantling has occurred, so that you are not the person you used to be. This is not progress. It is regress. There will no celebrations for you tonight.
I'm anxious to get out of this section, aren't you? But for each of us in the grip of sin, hoping to find ourselves once again in the grip of grace, this is an essential part of the experience. We need to see ourselves for the sinners that we are, and we need to see our sin for the damage that it does.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Invasive Surgery

The Bible uses language which leads me to think of God as a surgeon. He uses His "arrows" and "hand" to dig deep into our lives to correct the problems that we can scarcely describe, let alone repair. Listen to the psalmist speak:
“For Your arrows have sunk deep into me, And Your hand has pressed down on me.” (Psalms 38:2 NAS95)
Initially, this seems to us like bad news. We don't take kindly to the prospect of surgery. We warm to it reluctantly. We need to be convinced that it is absolutely necessary, and that we can trust this particular individual to do surgery on our person. This trust is based on some confidence and record of the surgeon's skills, and that he has the resources, tools, environment and support to do the work without complications. And even then, there are few of us who approach surgery without qualms.  
Our psalmist who testifies out of the circumstance of divine surgery - he is a sinner. Do I really want to go into surgery when the Surgeon knows that I am a scoundrel? As a sinner, we have violated the Surgeon's prescription and honor. He knows how likely we are to do it again. And he has my life in His hands. 
And yet it is this Surgeon alone who loves us enough to make the self-sacrificing investment in our lives. And it is this Surgeon alone who is able to successfully change us from the inside out. This divine action is our only hope. We need His arrows sunk deep into us, and we need His hand pressed down upon us.
Surgical language gets borrowed by those outside the medical community. The military speaks of "surgical strikes." These are lightning quick invasions into enemy territory, and then our soldiers/planes are gone even while the devastating effects are being realized. It might take a while for a population or government to even know who or what caused the damage. 
God the Surgeon not only operates on individual lives, but has acted as General as well in orchestrating a surgical strike into the enemy territory of this world by sending His Son into this world. Here is the Old Testament record of God's intent in Christ, using some of the same terms as in Psalm 38: 
“He has made My mouth like a sharp sword, In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me; And He has also made Me a select arrow, He has hidden Me in His quiver.”
(Isaiah 49:2 NAS95) 
Most people didn't realize what had happened until Jesus was already returned to heaven. Many still don't get it. But as with God's surgical action in my heart, I see that God's military action in this world was necessary to deal a death blow to the enemy and establish His rule in our crucified Captain and resurrected King, Jesus.
And so for Christians who read Psalm 38 and Isaiah 49, we find that the surgical and military actions of God come together in Christ who rescues the world from death and the devil and changes us from the inside out. Psalms 38:2, and news of divine surgery is not a threat, but a promise. We need His work in our lives. We need it now. "Please Lord, drive your purposeful and powerful surgical instruments deep into me. Hold me back and down and close with Your loving and correcting hand."

Thursday, September 02, 2010


The psalmist is having trouble. We can relate. And so he prays: 
“O LORD, rebuke me not in Your wrath, And chasten me not in Your burning anger.” (Psalms 38:1 NAS95)
Let's be clear: the psalmist is not asking to avoid rebuke or chastening. He is asking that He be spared the fierceness of God's wrath and burning anger in the process. "Deal with me, but deal with me gently."
These two (Hebrew) words describing God's anger are used in a telling context at the foot of Mt. Sinai when Moses descends only to find God's people sunk in sin. As Moses recounts the scene years later, he describes it this way: “For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure with which the LORD was wrathful against you in order to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 9:19 NAS95). These people were in deep danger. Their sin, and mine, creates an acute problem.
The best cross-reference I have found for God's action of rebuking and chastening is in Jeremiah 2:19: “Your own wickedness will correct you, And your apostasies will reprove you; Know therefore and see that it is evil and bitter For you to forsake the LORD your God, And the dread of Me is not in you,” declares the Lord GOD of hosts.” Jeremiah 2 is a classic chapter in describing the loss and peril that attaches to those who walk away from God. Now apply this to your own situation. Think about your sin(s), and then state that first phrase: "Your own wickedness will correct you." That is, the sin that you yourself commit will become the stake that skewers you one day in the future. The commission of sin(s) opens the door for evil and bitterness to flood into your life.
This all stems not just from your attraction to sin, but much more from your aversion to the fullness of who God is. One aspect that you and I purposely neglect is this: that God hates sin. He hated Israel's sin. He hates my sin. He hates your sin. God is terrible in relation to sin, and will unleash His terrors on sin and sinners. Aslan is not a safe lion, and our God is not a safe God. It is good for you and I to know something of the dread of God.
We cannot stop here. The blessed Gospel provides a safe haven from which we, like Daniel's three friends, can feel the fire without being consumed by the flames. Our Savior, Jesus Christ stared deeply into the dread of God and was consumed by it. He bore the penalty of our sin(s) Himself in our place. In Christ, we have relief. In Christ, the psalmist's prayer is answered: God will  rebuke and chasten, but not in His wrath and burning anger, not because He has laid aside His wrath, but rather because His wrath has been spent and satisfied in Christ's sacrifice.
As I sit here, hidden in Christ, I now ask that I would not be ignorant or forgetful of the dread of God - that my Father in heaven hates sin with a vengeance, and therefore, so should I. And, if you sit there, apart from Christ, I pray that the dread of God would compel you to come quickly to Christ and find the answer to the psalmist's prayer in Him.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


It's tough to keep it inside the lines. Even so, there are many who hone the skills and master the court or field. These are the winners, the champions, the heros. But how often do we find that these athletic experts are often miserable outside the arena. Their skills are limited in scope, and their discipline is short-lived. Their muscular forms are betrayed by shrunken souls in need of a faith that strives and perseveres.
Hebrews 12 shows us that the real contest is not confined to a field. The race that is run is not on a track, and one does not retire one Coach as he moves to the next level. The life of faith is lived on all surfaces, and the tests of faith come one after another in many forms that first try the body, then the mind, and the soul, and the heart, and the will. The struggling saint finds no finish line in this life, and celebrations over temporary successes are often more signs of pride than maturity.
So Christian, don't be misled. Your greatest feats may be accomplished on your knees in helplessness rather than with the strength of arms or legs. Your toughest tests will not be in front of a crowd, but instead when no one is looking. Your greatest glory is not praise for self, but rather glory to God, and you find yourself eclipsed in service and suffering.